Mark D. Roberts

Part 2 of series: European Reflections 2006
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I realize that there are different classes of people in this world. I’m talking about socio-economic classes, you know, upper class, middle class, lower class, etc. But, in most of my life, I don’t experience class distinctions. I live in a community of middle and upper-middle class people and, for the most part, class distinctions aren’t terribly obvious.
Yes, there are some upper class folk in our area. They live in lavish homes and drive expensive cars. But they don’t rub my face in their opulence. In fact, I’m rarely in their homes or cars. Similarly, there are folk from lower classes in my community, mostly doing manual labor jobs in town. But I don’t often see how they live when at home. In Irvine, California, class distinctions are mostly invisible. (I expect this is not the case for those who ride buses from lower income communities in order to work in my city, however.)
In normal life, just about the only time I experience class distinctions is when I take my wife out to a fancy restaurant for some special occasion. I’ve noticed that some of the patrons seem to be regulars, familiar with the waiters and even with each other. They seem to think nothing of plunking down a hundred bucks for dinner. I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to have that kind of money, but mostly I forget about it and enjoy a romantic evening with my wife. (Usually, I’m grateful for the chance to indulge myself even for one night.)
So, in most of my life, class doesn’t matter much. But then there’s air travel. Talk about class distinctions! It begins when you check in. Most people have queued up in slow moving lines, waiting to check their baggage and get their boarding passes. But business and first class travelers have special counters with short or non-existent lines. They zip through in minutes.
Then there’s the security screening. Once again, higher class travelers often slip through without much delay while ordinary folk have to poke along until it’s their turn prove that they don’t have bombs in their purses or weapons in their shoes.
Once inside the terminal waiting area, the humble masses struggle to find comfortable seats, or they wait in yet another long line to purchase a cup of Starbucks. The upper crust folk disappear as if by magic, passing through secured doors that lead into the wonderland of airport lounges. Here, seemingly miles away from the hustle and bustle of ordinary terminal life, people find free food and drinks, comfortable chairs, free Internet access, and glorious quiet. (Photo to the right: The calm quiet of the British Airways business class lounge at LAX)
I know something about these airport sanctuaries because, I must confess, my wife and I flew business class in our last trip. It was part of our tour package, I hasten to add, nothing that we ever would have purchased on our own. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s good or bad that I’ve experienced the paradise of the business class lounge. It was great at the moment, that’s for sure. But in the future, when I’m back in my normal place with the teeming masses, I’ll know what I’m missing. I may have been better off living in blessed ignorance. Now I run the risk of breaking the tenth commandment of air travel: “Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s airport lounge.”
When it’s finally time to board your aircraft, once again class distinctions take center stage. Who are the first to board the plane, after those with physical handicaps or howling babies? The first and business class travelers. Then those who have code names like “Gold Star Travelers” and “Premium Hot Shots” go next. In fact, these latter folk are the poor souls who have to fly all the time but can’t afford first class. I don’t resent their priority treatment, since they’ve earned it through the hard knocks of endless air travel. For pity’s sake, let them on the airplane first so they can try to stow their oversized carry-on items in the all-too-small overhead bins. Wheels in first, please.
The bigger planes often have entry doors between the upper classes and coach so ordinary folk don’t have to see what they’re missing. But smaller planes, the kind I usually take, ensure that coach passengers feel the pain of classist airline society. When you board the plane, you get to walk through first class, looking with envy on those who are already seated in their large seats, extending their legs comfortably, and sipping some sort of complementary adult beverage. (Of course it’s not really complementary. That champagne they’re drinking actually cost a few hundred dollars.) Whilst first class travelers look upon the hoi polloi with a mix of scorn and pity, we humble folk get our first glance at the coach cabin, which always looks to me like a combination of a Los Angeles traffic jam and an open sardine can.
By the time I’ve wedged myself into my tiny little coach seat, I’ve forgotten about the folk in first class. They live in splendor behind the curtain, while my unassuming coach-mates and I eat pretzels and sip orange juice. On the arrival side of plane travel class distinctions still exist, but aren’t as obvious. The first and business class travelers still have to grab their luggage from the same conveyer belts as the rest of us, though their bags sometimes come out first. (Photo to the right: clouds over England)
I’m not really complaining about my aeronautical experience of class distinctions. Mostly, I’m just noting it with curiosity. I find it especially interesting to gauge my own reactions, to feel the sense of envy, or being left out. I want to be a person who feels grateful for his own blessings without getting stuck the emotional swamp of covetousness. I hope to be someone who can enjoy even a few pretzels and a Coke while I peer out of the plane window and look down upon the clouds. As far as I know, the view from first class isn’t any better.

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